Labor Dispute Poisons a Bitter Town
TRONA, CA March 20, 1981 – The road to Trona drops like a hair ribbon through the ugly scar of Poison Canyon, gently curving around the vast, lifeless expanse known as Searles Dry Lake. The air is perpetually heavy with the rotten-egg smell of sulfur, an invisible cloud that squats over Searles Valley like a curse.
Nothing grows naturally in Trona. The children play on a football field made of sand. From time to time, a wild animal wanders to the edge of town, takes a drink of the alkali-fouled water, and drops dead. The people who live in Trona, a way station on the road to Death Valley about 180 miles northeast of Los Angeles, are proud of being different. They are independent, they say, and stubborn.
A Legacy of Violence
“It’s the kind of place,” says Dick Kuhlman, a 12 year resident, “where a man can strap on a six- gun, climb into a dune buggy, and spend a couple of days in the Old West. You can do what you want and nobody bothers you.”
A company town, Trona also has a bloody history of labor unrest. Shootings, arson and death threats have been a fixture of strikes. In a 1970 walkout a striker was shot by a security guard and there were as many fires in 10 days as the town normally has in half a year. It is a painful legacy of divisiveness and violence which, overnight, seems to turn friends against their neighbors. The bitterness in Trona is as strong as ever.
Since March 2, the 250 members of Local 398 of the International Chemical Workers Union have been on strike against the Westend plant of the Kerr-McGee Chemical Corp., a giant conglomerate that mines soda ash, borax, sulfate and lime from the lake and processes the minerals in three sprawling mills.
Even by Trona standards, though, the strike at Westend is no ordinary labor dispute. In fact, workers freely admit that their pay is high, and their jobs, while dangerous at times, are easy. The dispute centers on a “good-will clause” in a new contract proposed by Kerr-McGee. If adopted in its original form, it would allow the company to seek cash fines against the union if it or its members are found by an arbitrator to have harmed the good will at Kerr-McGee.
The union feels the proposal would curtail freedom of speech, gag its irreverent union newsletter, and ulitimately destroy the union with the burden of penalties.
The company, on the other hand, feels “21-1”, as the disputed paragraph is known to just about everybody in the valley, is necessary to bring order to the company’s operations and curb disobedience by the union. “They have a right to free speech, as we all do,” said Gordon Fawkes, director of administration or Kerr-McGee’s soda products operations. “We don’t propose to infringe on that right. But we do ask for cooperation from the union leadership in meeting the objectives of our plant operation.”
Not everybody in Trona understands this strike, least of all the old-timers and the workers at Kerr-McGee’s other plants. Since the strike started, there have been firebombings, shootings and a number of convincing death threats. “This place is like an armed camp,” said Eric Poole, the 29-year-old president of Local 398. “It’s a powder keg, and nobody knows what might happen if this strike goes on much longer.” From the start, the strike has been tinged with emotion, a vindictive spirit that transcends the by-play of most labor disputes. When negotiations broke down Feb.28, the union wanted to strike, but spies equipped with binoculars reported the arrival of an armada of campers, presumably to be used by supervisory personnel, and a large outside security force.
The union’s nine-member executive board decided at a secret meeting to go ahead with the strike, but each person who attended the meeting was sworn to tell his wife that they had decided to continue working for two more weeks without a contract. Poole said that within hours, the campers left the Westend plant like a desert caravan, and the guard force was sent back to Los Angeles. At 3 a.m. on March 2, the union placed a picket line around the Westend plant, surprising, in the words of a company official, “not only management, but most of the union membership.” “Kerr-McGee was absolutely mortified,” Poole Said.”They got completely outfoxed. In the long run it may cost us, because they are so mad about it that their pride is hurt something terrible.
Coincidentally, the railroad traffic in Searles Valley had been stopped for more than a week by a fire in a Southern Pacific tunnel. Virtually all of Westend’s production had to move by truck. Nearly all the drivers in this region are non-union, and like most other people here, they carry guns.
It wasn’t long before violence erupted. A number of pickets complained that they had been struck by the massive, 18-wheel vehicles that haul chemicals from the plant. Drivers complained of spiked tires, a blast of pellets through the windshield, and, in one case, a rock in the face. Two pickets were arrested.
A week after the strike began, a driver from Lancaster drew a gun while leaving the plant and fired into the air, scattering pickets in the drifts of alkali dust that resemble fresh snow. The driver was arrested.
Molotov cocktails were hurled into a work-yard owned by Ron Matheny, a private contractor who supplies laborers to the Westend plant and refused to honor the picket line. The next night, rifle fire came through the wall over Matheny’s head. Now he keeps a loaded pistol beside him. As a trailer truck drove past the struck plant, a half-ton case of ball bearings shattered on the ground, scattering lethal, three-quarter inch missiles. “it was like pennies from heaven,” said a striker. “We fell on our knees in thanks.”
About the same time, the mustachioed Poole began to receive death threats. He likes to compare himself to Karen Silkwood, a Kerr-McGee employee who died in a car crash in 1974 while on her way to a meeting with her union to complain about nuclear contamination at her Oklahoma plant. Her death was ruled an accident. Poole wears a Karen Silkwood T-shirt to the contract negotiations.
Officially, both the company and the union have condemned the violence. But Poole says there is “no way we can babysit 250 union members, and Kerr-McGee says it cannot force truck drivers to stop carrying guns. The mood of the strikers, which had been jovial to start, began to turn angry when Kerr-McGee obtained a temporary restraining order limiting union activity near company property. Being more or less a company town, the order also means that the strikers cannot legally attend the company-owned movie theater, visit Kerr-McGee’s water company, or use the town’s recreation center or swimming pool.
“This is an awfully ticklish situation,” said Tom Garrison, president of the Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union, which represents workers at Kerr-McGee’s Trona mill. “We’ve all got brothers, aunts and uncles down at the Westend plant, and this strike is turning us against each other.”
He said his union would do what it could to help the strikers, but noted ruefully, “We have a different philosophy from the Chemical Workers. That’s why we’re not the ones on strike.” It’s a sentiment not lost on some of the men walking the picket line. “Most of us don’t want to be here and we’re hoping it’s not a long strike,” said Ed Ballinger, a filter operator at Westend. “Right or wrong, we went on strike and you can’t turn back. We’re willing to fight for what we believe in.”
Frank Schmidt, whose face is as lined as aged mahogany after 15 years at the plant, adds: “We’re on strike because the company thinks you ain’t nothing but scum. They think you’re trash, and you can’t find out a damn thing from them.” Sgt. Vernon Smith, who runs the sheriff’s substation in Trona, notes the town is now “not what you’d call an ideal place to live in.” Smith is hopeful that the intimacy of the town – he says he knows most people by their first names – will help contain the violence. “It’s our home and these people are going to try to take care of it,” Smith said. “This strike is going to be over someday, and we’re all still going to be here. What will they do if they have hurt their neighbors?”
Roots in Muckraking
The roots of the strike probably date back a year or more, when Poole started publishing a muckraking broadsheet known as the “Westend Barb.” Fired off on a copy machine, “whenever I get inpired,” he says, the Barb has repeatedly tweaked the giant Kerr-McGee’s hierarchy publishing not only what Poole sees as the shortcomings of company policy, but exposes of management personal peccadilloes.
“Once again I feel duty-bound to inform you that something is drastically wrong with the current management team in the production department and in industrial relations,” Poole began in a recent issue, and went on to give an individual critique. In another, Poole savaged Robert Bouse, the plant’s manager, for taking supervisory staff to a dinner to celebrate increased productivity. “You, the employees who made it all possible,” Poole wrote, “didn’t even get a simple posting stuck on a board somewhere saying ‘Thanks.'”
Poole sign each copy of the newsletter, inviting the company to sue him for libel or fire him. “They won’t do it because they know it will go to court,” he says. “After Karen Silkwood they just hate
Poole’s broadsides have clearly not pleased Kerr-McGee – they say his reporting is inaccurate – nor has his refusal to cooperate over such thins as plant safety, which Poole considers a farce. “Kerr-McGee can make you or break you in this valley,” said a worker at one of the two plants not involved in the strike. “The company is a little god, and if you live here, you had better not forget it.”
The old contract between the company and Local 398 contained a clause pledging union members to cooperate to prevent absenteeism, waste and accidents, as well as strengthening “good will between the company and its employees.” The new contract, presented at the start of the negotiations with the union in January, added a two-sentence amendment.
“If the union or its members violates any part of this provision, the company shall present its complaint to the union which shall be adjudicated by an arbitrator,” the proposal said. “The arbitrator shall have jurisdiction to assess monetary penalty against the union for violation of this section.”
Although there were a number of language disputes over such things as the provisions of a new training program, both the union and the company admit those differences could have been settled quickly before the strike. “The only hangup was that line,” Poole said. “It will keep us out forever. We can’t ever go to work with this proposal. No matter how mad we get, or how lean and mean, we’re not going to work with that contract.”
In retrospect, Poole acknowledges that he may have become the primary issue in the strike. “If I were to pack up, quit my job and leave the valley,” he said, “You can bet 21-1 would be off the table in a minute. I’ve thought about it, but I’m not going to do it.”
Los Angeles Times – March 20, 1981 — By Charles P. Wallace